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After Cawthorn Charge, Democrats Are Split Over Capitol Gun Ban

WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats are debating whether to bar lawmakers from carrying firearms on the Capitol grounds, with House leaders pressing to make the complex gun-free but top senators in the party resisting the move.

House Democrats have been pressing for the ban since the violent storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, by a mob of supporters of former President Donald J. Trump, and the idea has gained momentum in the chamber amid extreme behavior from some Republicans, including the circulation of imagery portraying attacks on Democrats.

This week, a gun charge against Representative Madison Cawthorn, Republican of North Carolina — the second such charge for the first-term lawmaker — added urgency to the issue. But in private discussions about the prospect for such a policy, House Democrats have blamed their fellow Democrats in the Senate for standing in the way of a Capitol gun ban.

Lawmakers are already prohibited from carrying guns onto the floor of the House or Senate or into other select rooms, but they may carry them to and in their offices. One Colorado Republican, Representative Ken Buck, likes to show off the AR-15 rifle he keeps in his Capitol Hill office.

During a private meeting Wednesday with House committee chairs, Mr. Cawthorn’s latest gun charge came up, and Representative Steny H. Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat, expressed frustration over the situation, saying the Senate did not want to deal with the gun issue, according to a person familiar with the discussion who described it on the condition of anonymity. Mr. Hoyer blamed the Senate sergeant-at-arms, the chamber’s top security official, for blocking a change to existing rules that would have to be approved by the Capitol Police Board, which governs security around the complex, the person said.

Mr. Cawthorn, 26, was briefly detained by police on Tuesday after trying to bring a loaded gun through airport security in Charlotte, N.C., in his carry-on bag after a security agent saw the image of the firearm on an X-ray machine, the second time in a little more than a year he has been stopped from flying with a firearm.

Mr. Hoyer told his fellow top Democrats on Wednesday that William J. Walker, the House sergeant-at-arms, was planning to put out a letter calling for the Capitol complex to be gun-free but that he did not have agreement from the Senate, the person familiar with Mr. Hoyer’s comments said.

In a letter sent to Mr. Walker on Wednesday, Mr. Hoyer called Mr. Cawthorn’s conduct “disturbing” and called for a “clear and unambiguous policy in place regarding gun safety in the Capitol Complex and grounds.”

He cited confusion from some members who believe they can carry their guns into committee rooms during hearings or while working on legislation.

Spokesmen for Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, and Karen Gibson, the Senate sergeant-at-arms, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

To date, Democrats in the Senate — who count several fervent gun-rights advocates in their ranks — have not expressed the same concerns as House members have about lawmakers bringing guns onto the floor. There are no metal detectors posted at the entrances of the chamber.

By contrast, after the Jan. 6 attack, House officials imposed a rule requiring all members to pass through magnetometers to enter the chamber, where guns are prohibited.

At least eight members of Congress have been fined for violating the rule — which carries a penalty of $5,000, followed by $10,000 for subsequent violations — though most of their cases have been dismissed on appeal.

Members of Congress are also prohibited from carrying firearms in certain rooms of the complex, including lobbies near the chambers, cloakrooms, the Marble Room of the Senate, and the Rayburn Room of the House.

Washington has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation, and while a 1967 law bans most people from carrying guns on Capitol Hill, members of Congress were given an exception.

Under regulations issued by the Capitol Police Board, lawmakers are allowed to keep firearms in their offices and may transport them, unloaded and secured, to and from their offices. Members of Congress also are often allowed to bypass metal detectors coming into buildings.

House Democrats for months have been urging the board — which includes the two chambers’ sergeants-at-arms and the architect of the Capitol — to change the regulation.

“The current policy serves no purpose but to endanger workers, staff, press, visitors and members across the Capitol complex,” said Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said she had long supported altering the rules to make the Capitol complex gun-free.

Republicans have resisted such a change. Days before the Capitol riot, 83 House Republicans wrote a letter to Ms. Pelosi and Representative Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California and the minority leader, urging against a wider ban on carrying firearms on the Capitol grounds.

“If Members can’t carry on Capitol grounds, they can’t protect themselves in D.C. while making their way to and from their offices to perform their official duties,” stated the letter, which was signed by Mr. Cawthorn as well as Representative Lauren Boebert, Republican of Colorado, who made a fund-raising video purportedly showing her walking the streets around the Capitol with a gun holstered under her blazer.

Mr. Cawthorn has said he carried his gun with him during the Jan. 6 riot.

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